Friday, December 31, 2010

Income Inequality and Political Economy

Robert Lieberman has an interesting book review on disparate wealth distribution in the United States and associated political economy in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs:
It is generally presumed that economic forces alone are responsible for this astonishing concentration of wealth. Technological changes, particularly the information revolution, have transformed the economy, making workers more productive and placing a premium on intellectual, rather than manual, labor. Simultaneously, the rise of global markets -- itself accelerated by information technology -- has hollowed out the once dominant U.S. manufacturing sector and reoriented the U.S. economy toward the service sector. The service economy also rewards the educated, with high-paying professional jobs in finance, health care, and information technology. At the low end, however, jobs in the service economy are concentrated in retail sales and entertainment, where salaries are low, unions are weak, and workers are expendable.

Champions of globalization portray these developments as the natural consequences of market forces, which they believe are not only benevolent (because they increase aggregate wealth through trade and make all kinds of goods cheaper to consume) but also unstoppable. Skeptics of globalization, on the other hand, emphasize the distributional consequences of these trends, which tend to confer tremendous benefits on a highly educated and highly skilled elite while leaving other workers behind. But neither side in this debate has bothered to question Washington's primary role in creating the growing inequality in the United States.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Boehner's Tears and His Actions

Timothy Egan, over at The New York Times has a great post up talking about John Boehner's teary-eyed profile on 60 minutes. Beyond the double-standard that would have disallowed Nancy Pelosi to withstand a sob-fest when she became Speaker of the House, there is also the question of why John Boehner cries so much:

"'Making sure these kids have a shot at the American dream like I did is very important,' [Boehner] said, choking up."

Egan then does a great job of listing all the things that are designed to help people have a shot at the American dream, but that John Boehner has voted against. Time and again Boehner's actions, his votes, have been obstacles to people achieving something greater.

To me, this is the great challenge to America in the 21st century. The slow erosion of social safety nets and the lock-step aversion of the Republican party to consider new social safety nets will allow the rate of disparity to continue apace.

I doubt John Boehner will cry when presented with the statistics that show a consolidation of wealth at the highest tiers of earners. It's easier to get teary-eyed at the abstraction of the American dream, then to dry your eyes and help make it a reality for people.

UPDATED: h/t to Matt Yglesias for pointing out this peice in The New York Times by David Leonhardt. Mr. Leonhardt makes a point I couldn't quite put to words and does so eloquently:

It's easy to look at the current debate and see an unavoidable trade-off between this country's two economic traditions - risk-taking and security. but I don't think that's quite right. I think it is ultimately as misplaced as those worries about Social Security and Medicare equaling Bolshevism.

Guaranteeing people a decent retirement and decent health care does more then smooth out the rough edges of capitalism. Those guarantees give people the freedom to take risks. If you know that professional failure won't leave you penniless and won't prevent your child form receiving needed medical care, you can leave the comfort of a large corporation and take a chance on your own idea. You can take a shot at becoming the next great American entrepreneur.

To me, this is precisely why we need social safety nets. In most policy debates we are given this false choice between individual ingenuity and government coddling. Leonhardt hits on the point quite nicely that some sort of economic backstop can free people to take the big swings and aim for the fences.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

AfPak after Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke's passing on Monday was truly a loss for the foreign policy establishment. If there are rock stars of foreign policy, surely he would be Mick Jagger. He was the elder statesmen of Democratic foreign policy. He was brash, forceful, and relentless. When he was tapped to be Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in January 2009, there was a real sense that he could pull the situation together and bring it to some sort of resolution. Sadly, he was unable to finish his work, but work remains to be done, and the fates of nations rarely rest on the fate of a man.

What happens now in AfPak? Our current political approach hasn't produced much. It was widely reported that Holbrooke and Karzai didn't get along. Since recently Karzai hasn't gotten along with anyone within the U.S. government, that is unsurprising. Perhaps there is an opportunity to bring in a new special envoy, a new voice, with a new plan for the political strategy necessary to reach a conclusion to large scale U.S. involvement in AfPak.

I am just beginning to consider what that strategy could be, and I have no idea who would serve in the role of Special Envoy. I hope to have a post up on that a little later this week. One thing is clear, if there is a new Special Envoy for AfPak they won't have the star power, the presence, indeed the sheer force that Richard Holbrooke brought to the position.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nasser al-Aulaqi's Suit Dismissed

Judge Bates today dismissed Nasser al-Aulaqi's suit on behalf of his son, American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, for want of standing. Nasser, Anwar's father, had asserted "next friend" standing, which affords family members the ability to bring suit on behalf of an individual unable to access the courts--next friend standing is particularly relevant in habeas corpus petitions. Al-Aulaqi asserted that he satisfied next friend standing because his son is in hiding under threat of death and could therefore not access US courts. The government, on the other hand, argued that Anwar al-Aulaqi could in fact access US courts by presenting and surrendering himself to a US embassy in Yemen. Judge Bates wrote
Plaintiff has failed to provide an adequate explanation for his son's inability to appear on his own behalf, which is fatal to plaintiff's attempt to establish "next friend" standing.3 In his complaint, plaintiff maintains that his son cannot bring suit on his own behalf because he is "in hiding under threat of death" and any attempt to access counsel or the courts would "expos[e] him[] to possible attack by Defendants." Compl. ¶ 9; see also id. ¶ 26; Al-Aulaqi Decl. ¶ 10. But while Anwar Al-Aulaqi may have chosen to "hide" from U.S. law enforcement authorities, there is nothing preventing him from peacefully presenting himself at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and expressing a desire to vindicate his constitutional rights in U.S. courts. Defendants have made clear -- and indeed, both international and domestic law would require -- that if Anwar Al-Aulaqi were to present himself in that manner, the United States would be "prohibit[ed] [from] using lethal force or other violence against him in such circumstances."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Taxing the Rich? You betcha!

Our colleague over at To Get Rich is Glorious, tries to scare us into believing an increase in the income tax for those in the top bracket will hinder economic development. He points to the bag tax in DC and the cigarette tax in Maryland as examples of what could happen if the Bush tax cuts are not extended.

This is a common argument against the administration proposal to let the tax cuts expire for those making over $250,00 per year, but does it hold water?

Here's a graph:
It's a little tough to read, but looking from 1988 to 2008 I pulled data on GDP (trillions chained to 2005 dollars), GDP percentage change (based on chained 2005 dollars), and overlay-ed the individual income tax rate for the top income tax bracket. I got the GDP numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the tax rate numbers from the National Taxpayers Union.

So what does the graph tell us? Honestly, not much. Seems like the 1990s were good times for US economic growth, despite and increase in taxes in 1991 and 1993. It also seems like the 2000s weren't some boon time spurred on the Bush tax cuts. These are incredibly strained causal arguments and I'm perfectly comfortable admitting that. At the same time, one can't make us fearful of a return to a tax rate we lived quite comfortably with during the 1990s.

You see, our colleague, to my mind, conflates several different economic topics in his examples. When looking at the bag tax, you're looking at substitution effect and some aspects of price-elasticity of demand. Turns out, people don't want to pay 5 cents for a plastic bag. In the example of Maryland and the cigarette tax, clearly the government overplayed its hand and came in excess of the elasticity of demand for cigarettes. They effectively priced the cigarettes beyond what people were willing to pay.

What does that tell us about letting the Bush tax rates expire for the top income bracket? Not much. The marginal utility of the first dollar earned beyond $250,000 (to use the administration's line) would be different from dollar $249,999, but the marginal utility of dollar $250,000 to $2 million is the same. If the marginal utility of each dollar earned is constant (at least as it relates to the tax paid on each dollar), then there is no evidence an individual would work less.

But wait, you say, look what happened to Maryland. They priced people out of buying cigarettes. You know, it sure looks like they did, but we aren't discussing a tax rate never considered before. We are talking about a tax rate that we lived just fine with for nearly a decade.

So beyond the sniff test, which makes it highly specious people would work less hard because the tax rate changes, this argument doesn't pass the economics test either. As an aside, not bad externalities to have people using fewer plastic bags and smoking less.

Palin, JFK, and Religion

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend spends some time defending her uncle's masterful speech to Houston Ministerial Association, where he sought to undo the perception that his Catholicism outweighed is American-ism, from Sarah Palin.

Palin questions the speech in her recent book, America by Heart, and thinks Kennedy divorced his religion from his governance, and that this was wrong. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, meanwhile, spends the majority of her essay defending separation of church and state, but also indicts those that would impose a religious litmus test on political candidates.

"Not only does she [Palin] want people to reveal their beliefs, but she wants to sit in judgement of them if their views don't match her own. For instance, she criticizes Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and a faithful Catholic, for talking the (God) talk but not walking the walk. Who is Palin to say what God's 'walk' is?" (my emphasis)

Quite right. There is a disturbing trend in American politics that candidates face litmus tests on all sides and instead of being rewarding for being genuine, they must walk this tight rope between what they truly believe and what a base of supporters will let them believe. Palin, it would seem, believes there is a religious litmus test a candidate must past.

This could help explain why Palin is the current presidential front runner for the Republican party. She's the one tying up the rope.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Just Discriminate

Matthew Yglesias has a quick thought up about the current DADT debate, and he asks an important question relevant to many issues related to the LGBTQ community:

"Do any of them think they’re on the right side of history here?"

This is a thought I have often when considering the policy position of conservatives, particularly as it relates to social issues.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

World Cup in Qatar

The U.S. was shut out again. Not even the combined star power of Landon Donovan, Bill Clinton, and Nelso...err Morgan Freeman was enough to earn the U.S. it's second World Cup in 2022.

I'm a little bitter about it and the wound is fresh, but I'm not going to focus on some of the more petty issues of hosting the World Cup in Qatar, like where to get a beer or the absurdity of air-conditioned OUTDOOR! stadiums. And these same stadiums will be fully dismantle-able for shipment to less advantaged countries. Clearly FIFA is not concerned about the carbon footprint of the World Cup.

Instead, I'm considering if Qatar will be the Qatar of 2010 in 2022. It is an economy perpetrated on oil wealth and a country that seems to burn through money faster then the petrol they sell. I wonder if Qatar will still be a land of opportunity in 2022, or if diminished oil reserves, increased utilization of alternative energy, and potential inability for the economy to move beyond one natural resource will relegate the country back to LDC status. I hope for the sake of Qataris that is not the case, but twelve years in a long time. Where was Qatar twelve years ago?

I suppose FIFA feels they always have the U.S. on standby. We could host the World Cup with a few weeks notice and the security blanket (not unlike a security umbrella) is reassuring, though not reason enough to award us the games outright. For now, I think FIFA took a big gamble selecting Qatar, and I think it's a far bigger gamble then South Africa was.

Legislative Blockades & Governing

So here we are, exactly one month since the Democrats got walloped in the election. Republicans have won the House and gained ground in the Senate, but of course that's not until next month which means obstructionism continues to abound.

On Wednesday Senate Republicans vowed, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to block any and all legislation until there is resolution on the continuation of the Bush era tax cuts. From The New York Times article, here are some of the things that won't get done until the tax cut issue is resolved:

- The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell
- The continuation of jobless benefits for millions of still unemployed Americans, with benefits set to expire (wait for it) on Christmas day
- The ratification of the New START Treaty
- Passage of the DREAM Act, giving illegal immigrants brought here as children the opportunity to become U.S. citizens
- Passage of the previously passed (but parliamentary fumbled) food safety bill

Very seriously, 2 out of 5 of those might reflexively raise the ire of Republicans. They could even be considered part of a "liberal wishlist" but 3 out of 5 seem largely mundane. But of course, in the Republican economic policy, tax cuts are supreme. It would appear literally nothing else matters. Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to suggest the legislative work the Democrats are trying to accomplish runs counter to the outcome of the election. I think he misreads the situation.

You see, the Republicans don't actually take power until next month, but I think in the minds of many Americans the transfer of power happens on election night. Republicans are in a strengthened position and I believe those that voted for them, by and large, expected that they would govern, not obstruct. I think the failure to pass some of these things will fall at the feet of Republicans. I'm a poor prognosticator so take that prediction for what it's worth, but after the holidays, if millions of people no longer receive unemployment benefits, if all Americans see the tax cuts sunset, they will also see a Republican Speaker of the House and a strengthened Senate Minority Leader. Sure, President Obama will get some blame, but he doesn't cast a vote.

I think people will see this as the Republican party, extorting Democrats and throwing a tantrum like a child that wants two scoops of ice cream, but only got one. I wonder what Republicans will do in January. Is the Republican party capable, with its current membership, of governing at all?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

“As a matter of law”

Ben Wittes, a fellow at Brookings and journalist who follows national security and law, responds to Nick Baumann of Mother Jones on Wittes blog (co-authored with Jack Goldsmith and Robert Chesney) today. Baumann attacks Wittes for what he sees as Wittes arguing about “straw terrorists” in the context of whether the United States has the legal authority to kill Anwar al-Aulaqi. Wittes writes

I think Baumann makes several important analytical errors here, errors which lead to a too-simplistic boiling down of positions that one cannot so easily condense. For starters, it is quite wrong to say, as Baumann does, that imminence is “the key issue here.” As a matter of law, if Al Aulaqi is covered by the AUMF and one accepts that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with AQAP, Al Aulaqi can be targeted at will.


“As a matter of law,” Wittes is wrong. International humanitarian law—the law that governs conduct within an armed conflict—admits only two categories of armed conflict: international and non-international. Each category provides certain authority and certain obligations to the parties of an armed conflict. Importantly, the authorities and obligations attach to one party even if the other party does not follow the law. International armed conflicts occur when there is a resort to force between states. All other armed conflicts—those that occur between states and non-state actors or among non-state actors—are non-international armed conflicts.

Whereas in international armed conflicts, states may target combatants at will—unless they are hors de combat—in non-international armed conflict, there is no such thing as a combatant. Instead, states are forced to target civilians who have forfeited their status as protected by directly participating in hostilities. This means that these individuals are targetable when they are on their way to or from some hostile action or while they are participating in that hostile action: think a farmer walking to the edge of his village to plant an IED, planting that IED, and walking back. However, in recognition of the difficulty this law places the state in, an emerging norm of customary international law recognizes “continuous combat function,” which is an expansion of the notion of direct participation in hostilities. An erstwhile civilian may so regularly engage in hostile action that he performs no other role in life; he becomes combatant-like and therefore targetable at will.

There is good reason to believe that Anwar al-Aulaqi has assumed a continuous combat function by taking on an operational role in AQAP and is therefore targetable at will. However, it is far from assured that that international humanitarian law has, “as a matter of law,” recognized such a targetable status.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WikiLeaks Revisited

The Wikileaks disclosure continues to generate chatter in the blogsphere and I thought it was worth it to put up some links.

- Always good to be in the company of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in your opinions and it would appear I am.

- Politico's Ben Smith believes WikiLeaks is hell-bent on diminishing America's power. I don't disagree that is WikiLeaks goal, but I wonder if they overestimate the magnitude of America's power.

- Will Wilkinson at Democracy in America believes the WikiLeaks disclosure is a blow against the state elite. In perhaps the most provocative statements he makes he doesn't seem to mind if the disclosure leads to the deaths of U.S. sources or U.S. government officials because without this disclosure, the state elite would have claimed the lives of others.

- Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council, (and good friend of DCExile) has an article in the Huffington Post taking WikiLeaks to task for endangering U.S. officials and their sources, criticizes the here-to limited diplomacy of the U.S. toward Iran under President Obama, and considers opportunities for future negotiations in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosure.

Monday, November 29, 2010

106

With more than a month left in 2010, the United States has already doubled its 2009 tally for drone strikes in Pakistan. The United States launched its 106th strike over the weekend, at a target in North Waziristan. In 2009, the US launched 53 drone strikes in Pakistan compared to 34 strikes in 2008. Both the year-on-year, and the intra-year rate of strikes has increased, with the United States launching 54 attacks in the first 8 months of 2010 and 52 in the following three months.

While many scholars and commentators seek to justify US drone strikes in Pakistan under either the rubric of self-defense or by expanding the zone of combat of the war in Afghanistan to include the frontier region of Pakistan, the proliferation of strikes and the fact that armed groups other than Al Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban are targeted leaves these explanations wanting. It is likely that the intensity of US drone strikes and the level of organization of the targeted groups places the United States in an armed conflict in Pakistan, triggering international humanitarian law.

WikiLeaks Strikes Again

Hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving, ate plenty, slept in, and didn't have their grundle grabbed by TSA. It's back to reality and reality comes, in part, in the form of another WikiLeaks disclosure of classified U.S. documents. The New York Times summarizes some of the juicier tidbits, and attempts to put the documents in context.

I'm not sure what to feel about this disclosure and others WikiLeaks has been a part of. It seems dangerous to me to just release all these documents. I'm confident it's illegal for an employee of the U.S. government to share this documents. I'm confused as to what WikiLeaks hopes to accomplish. Is the release of information the objective? Is it striving for a more open-source society and does the release of these documents help to achieve that goal? I think more transparency is better, but I hesitate to embrace the release because I'm not convinced WikiLeaks fully considers what disclosure of people's names in these documents could mean for them or their families.

After some thinking out loud, let's clarify a couple things:
1) While some of the drama described is juicy, the cables don't really reveal anything we didn't already know. It was largely the same with the previous releases. We get more detail and we get names, but the narrative isn't markedly different.

2) This and the prior releases are not similar to and should not be compared to the release of The Pentagon Papers. Disregard what you hear from Daniel Ellsberg. I think he's bought in to his own mystique too much. Mr. Ellsberg did a public service by leaking a study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam over the course of several decades. It was a document vetted and edited to provide a full picture and not simply bits of chatter with people's names in it.

Again, I still don't know what to make of WikiLeaks and its disclosure of confidential U.S. documents, but I think it's clear the disclosure is not an act of heroism.

Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA, Outrage, and War

So in case you didn't hear, the TSA is under fire for enhancing search procedures. Specifically, people are up in arms about the body scanner that leaves little to the imagination or (if you elect to not go through the scanner) enhanced pat downs. Neither of these options are enjoyable, but how much of this is a real uproar and how much is media grabbing?

According to a CBS poll out last week, 81% of Americans support full-body X-ray scanner with only 15% not supporting the measure. This hasn't stopped calls for a boycott of TSA on Wednesday (the busiest travel day of the year) by some. TSA Administrator John S. Pistole has a statement out which correctly reminds people "we cannot forget less then a year ago a suicide bomber...tried to bring down a plane over Detroit." He has also urged people just this morning to not cause slowdowns at security checkpoints so people can get home to see loved ones.

As someone who will be flying Wednesday, I'm really hoping people heed his request. Of course, bigger happenings are afoot in the halls of Congress. Ron Paul has introduced legislation that would open up TSA employees to prosecution if they engage in enhanced pat downs. Rep. John Mica of Florida has said TSA should be ditched for private contractors. Of course the TSA, when asked for comment simply stated private contractors wouldn't be a cure all since "TSA sets the security standards that must be followed." Perhaps Rep. Mica will be more comfortable having a private contractor copping a feel as opposed to a federal employee?

I spend a fair bit of time in airports. I have been patted down just so I could board a plane in Columbia. I have been interrogated by a Federale in Mexico. I have suffered long lines, forgotten belts, and I tend to look for men in suits when figuring out which security line I'm going to go through, but I take this as all part of the process. The security procedures could be overblown, but clearly (based on the CBS poll) most American are fine with whats being done.

My issue is this: How can you be up in arms about security procedures at airports designed to protect American lives when you voted to send American troops to Iraq? As someone who voted to send troops to Iraq, Rep. Mica should have to answer that question. How is it tolerable to put U.S. troops in harms way but not to go through a full body scanner? (Ron Paul doesn't have to answer the same question. He is consistent in his convictions.)

As for me, I hope people go with the flow through airport security on Wednesday. It won't be enjoyable and special preparations may be needed (fluffer?), but we're in it together. This is the world we live in and while we debate that balance between civil liberty and security I just want to make it to the airplane on time. Overhead space will be at a premium.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

NPR = Nazis?

According to Roger Ailes, the news chief for Fox News that little math equation is accurate. He since apologized for using the word "Nazi" (and can I just say it seems like everybody virulent conservatives don't like are Nazis these days. Also, while "socialist" was in the full title of the Nazi party, they were in fact facists, but I digress)

Matthew Steinglass takes a moment to reflect on the absurdity of Ailes quote. And it is absurd, not only in citing Nazis, but in grammar.

My beef is this taken as word supposition that NPR is some virulent leftist broadcast station schilling liberal propaganda on the government dime. Come'on man. Really? Does NPR lean left? Oh maybe, but when I listen to NPR it seems to lean intelligent and reasoned rather then a specific direction. Maybe what makes Ailes and other conservatives so angry is that NPR fact-checks the often groundless statements pundits and politicians make.

As to whether or not NPR should receive any federal dollars, I'm ambivalent. Ambivalence is of course the death knell of a blog such as this one, but I've been listening to the dulcet tones of Michele Norris' voice for the last couple hours and everything seems alright.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Consumer Price Index (Inflation) Update

File this under mundane, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics released October CPI numbers this morning they they are reporting a CPI-U of 0.2, which is to say a very, very small increase in prices.

This is a boring fact, but important in the broader discussion about what to do with the economy. We are teetering on price deflation at this point, which sounds good but in practice is bad. These numbers would also tend to lead credence to the Fed's planned quantitative easing. I've put you to sleep already, haven't I?

The bottom line is this, if people balk at certain remedies espoused to help our economy on the ground that they are worried about inflation, you can tell them they are ridiculous.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Daily Graph

I stole this from the Economist.com, but an interesting graph showing a modified Human Development Index with countries and U.S. States side by side.
Ben, I'm sorry to here about Arkansas being 47 out of 50.

Negotiating with Iran

Our good friend, Reza Marashi, got published somewhere people actually read. His article with Trita Parsi on 5 tips to make the next round of US-Iran negotiations better then the last recently published in Foreign Policy magazine is an interesting and quick read.

While I defer to Reza on just about everything Iran, I have some thoughts to share (that's what the blog is for after all):
1. Tip #3 is the biggest tip of all in my opinion. There was a study put out by the RAND Corporation last year titled Mullahs, Guards, and Banyards. If you want to have the first clue about Iran power dynamics, it's a must read. It also really reinforces Tip #3. There are so many stakeholders in Iran. You could draw a Venn diagram, but in the end it would look like a bad acid trip with all the overlapping circles. I think it's important for the U.S. to remember that there are people in position of power in Iran interested in working with us and while we can't cater to them exclusively, it's an opportunity.

2. Could we get a corresponding article about what Iran can do to make the negotiations productive? That's like saying "Thank you for the apples, but how about some damn oranges!" but I had this nagging feeling reading the tips that the U.S. had to do X, Y, and Z and Iran did not. Thirty years of enmity will cause that kind of reaction.

3. Let's accept we were wrong to support the Shah the way we did. Let's maybe even apologize. Guys, as a nation we messed up in Iran. We messed up in a lot of nations during the Cold War, but the reaction in Iran was perhaps the most stark and the relationship sense likely the worst. It is not a sign of weakness to apologize. It's a sign of humanity and a dignified gesture (since we can't undo what happened) befitting a superpower. Our arrogance and own ignorance/denial of history make us look childish.

One final thought: It's all connected. The Islamic revolution of 1979, the overthrow (and subsequent hanging) of Bhutto by Zia al-Haq, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and America's impotence in the entire region is all connected. We spent many decades messing about in the affairs of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and I don't think we could be considered a net positive. Negotiating with Iran, earnestly, patiently, and in anything resembling good faith could be the first step in trying to reverse the reviled perception of the U.S. in the region.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Afghanistan

I just finished this morning Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. I mentioned it before, but wanted to return to it as I think it is currently the definitive book on Afghanistan’s history out there right now. Barfield comes to a few conclusions about the current state of Afghanistan that I think are worth noting.

First, Barfield believes the Karzai government has squandered their opportunity and is losing legitimacy with every day that passes. Inevitably in Afghanistan, the key to ruling the country by the acquiescence, if not the allegiance of the populace has been the perception of legitimacy of one’s right to rule. This legitimacy has not historically come through elections, but familial, religious, or nationalistic claims.

Second, the Karzai government (and initially his international backers) believed that Afghanistan had to have a strong centralized government to hold together disparate ethnic groups. This belief came despite the recorded demise of every regime that has tried to wield significant power over the entirety of the country from Kabul. Indeed, the most effective regimes have declared supremacy from Kabul, but allowed the historical regions to be largely autonomous. The key has always been to limit the actual footprint of the Kabul government in the day to day lives of the Afghans.

It was also a misreading of the ethnic divisions. They exist, to be certain, but have not manifested into the kind of dynamic we have seen in the Balkans. There is an Afghan identity, which may be secondary to ones ethnic or tribal identity, but not so inferior as to foment a nationalist uprising in specific ethnic regions.

Third, every regime in Kabul that tried to enact sweeping social changes has faced opposition from the rural areas of Afghanistan. The social changes are seen as an assault on Islam and, in some regions, Pashtunwali that have defined relationships and local governance for hundreds of years. Successful and stable regimes have fostered social change in major cities, but largely left social custom unchanged in the rural areas. This goes back to the issue of a strong central government. If social changes are enforced at the local level, then the government footprint isn’t light and resentment arises, oft leading to rebellion.

Given these observations of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, Barfield makes two key recommendations on how to get a handle on the situation.

1) Don’t look to have a strong central government. Instead, create a federal or pseudo-federal system where governance is largely handled in the historic regions of the country. This federalization should not look like the districts or whatever that Karzai has created. Instead, the historic power centers of Herat, Khandahar, Kabul, and Mazar should be empowered to handle much of the governance. This is how Afghanistan has worked historically and there is little reason to believe it wouldn’t work now. In fact, it would feed nicely into the dogma that Afghanistan is trapped in the middle ages.

2) Everyone needs to slow down on the social changes. This is hard to listen and abhorrent to many in the West, but Barfield makes note of the failure of all regimes that tried to change social custom dramatically and uniformly across the country. Instead, he notes the shifting demography, the large number of young people, the increasing urbanization, and he recommends a model adopted by the most stable of Afghan regimes in the 20th century. Embrace social change in urban areas, but don’t enforce it in the rural areas. Over time customs and culture change. Rather to have the people choose to change, then to have the government enforce change.

I think both of these suggestions are pretty solid, though maybe a tough political sell. Overall, I greatly enjoyed the book and it satisfied what I wanted. I wanted something that took me back to square one in Afghanistan. Barfield does that and does it well and he brings you all the way to the present and gives some great analysis of the current situation and some recommendation on how to move forward. Will American, and perhaps more importantly Afghan, policymakers learn the lessons that Barfield offers? I have my doubts, but if you want to know more about Afghanistan and put the book down with a sense of hope that there is a path out of the wilderness then I recommend picking up Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

About Tonight

Ah, the First Tuesday in November, E-Day. A few thoughts and predictions about this evening's outcome:
- GOP picks up between 35 and 38 seats in the House.
- Joe Sestak and Patrick Murphy win in PA
- Harry Reid hangs onto his seat.

One overarching comment directed to the Obama Administration: a mid-term defeat does not 1994 (nor, ultimately, 1996) make. The Republican Congressmen and women elected tonight are not interested in legislating and, therefore, are not interested in compromise. I would stop looking at the post-1994 Clinton White House as a model.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Latin America from on the ground

I spend the last couple weeks in Latin America and thought I'd provide my thoughts on a few of the countries I saw. Some of the lead-ins are going to sound like something out of a Thomas Freidman column. Please don't take that as an endorsement of his style, content, or being.

Brazil
I was in Sao Paulo last week and something occurred to me. These folks have a long way to go, but they are making progress. I was staying at a fantastic Hilton is what was a decidedly business district (the adjoining mall was closed on Saturdays and Sundays) thinking up new words for large, complex topics and decided to take this picture out my window.

It's a little bit hard to see, but notice the rising favellas on the hill. I was in Sao Paulo and even as I was ensconced in a fabulous hotel, I was advised not to wander too far. This is the juxtaposition of a place like Sao Paulo. Barely more then a stones throw away from Brazil's world trade center (in the foreground) was a favella. Now the government is investing heavily in this location and I would wager the days are numbered for the particular favella.

This was a theme throughout the Latin American cities I visited in the past few weeks. There are a growing number of haves, but a persistent number of havenots as well. Of course, different governments have embraced economic policy. The great contrast being between Chile and Brazil (among the countries I visited).

Chile
I was talking to a businessman in a five star hotel in Santiago drinking a pisco sour (which I was told originated in Chile) he spoke of how the country has been dealing with some issues, both short-term and long term. In the short-term the country had been dealing with a massive earthquake and the mining disaster. In fact, as we met Chilean news had minute by minute coverage of the miners with the countdown graphic as they road the Phoenix to escape the cavern that had been their prison for 2 months. Despite this, he remarked how proud his country was. They had dealt with both problems with aplomb, in his estimation, and it seemed to be validation of a system of governance and economics that allowed Chile to do better then many countries during the recession.

Of course, this prompted the long-term issue. Chile suffers from a post-Pinochet identity crisis. As the liberal, Chicago school economic policies of the Pinochet regime bear fruit Chileans are put in a weird position. Can they applaud some of the policies while deriding the man? It is a whisper on the lips of many successful Chileans, something alluded to but rarely said allowed. The mention of Pinochet can still induce a visceral reaction among many Chileans, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the economic policies and institutions his regime put in place have positioned Chile well to move past a commodity dependent economy. Of course challenges remain, and they haven't made the transition away from commodities yet. Many of the miners broke through to the surface and immediately called for new mining safety regulations to prevent the kind of accidents they fell victims to. They weren't martyrs, but messengers and they brought their message at the point of greatest resonance with the population. The government response remains to be seen.

Peru
I really liked Peru, the people, the city of Lima, the food, and the pisco sours (which I was told originated in Peru). It, like many of the cities in Latin America is a city of contrasts. Consider this picture of the tourist-y upscale district of Miraflores.















And then consider this shot of a village about 30km away near the Pachacamac ruins. As much as I loved Peru, on statistic that I had heard shocked me. I had read Hernando De Soto's The Other Path sometime ago for grad school and he talks extensively about the need to bring the informal economy into the government fold. He talks about valuing ownership, and he presents all this as a way to combat the ideology of the leftist terrorist group The Shining Path.

Peruvian President Fujimoro embraced many of the policies and indeed The Shining Path was largely marginalized. The streets of Lima were some of the safest I walked in the region. And yet I heard that 60% of the Peruvian economy is estimated to be informal. This is the largest percentage in Latin America.


So those are just some random thoughts about a few of the countries I visited. It's an amazing region with amazing people and history (and food: chicarron, feijda, ceviche). All my observations are amateurish reflections from 4 and 5 star hotels, but for what it's worth, that's what I saw and thought.

GOP: All the Benefits of Anti-Bailout Populism . . .

. . . none of the downsides.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Awakening Council Reverting

No matter how you look at it, this isn't good for Iraq or the US. It seems like there are a number of reasons for the reversion back to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but perhaps the most troubling is the perception (or perhaps reality) that the Iraqi government isn't keen to bring Awakening Council members into the fold.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Citizens United: Another Angle

Since it fostered so much debate yesterday, I thought it would be worth while to post a link to this piece in Democracy in America. Matt Steinglass raises the question of the appropriateness of foreign money being spent to influence U.S. elections. He lays out rather logically how the Citizens United decision makes it legal (and largely untraceable) for foreign governments to spend large sums of money to influence American elections. He notes:

Surely, the Supreme Court would hold it unconstitutional for Congress to pass a law prohibiting foreign citizens from getting up on a soapbox in Central Park and stating that they prefer one candidate or another in an American election. On what basis, then, can Congress bar foreign corporations from buying unlimited campaign advertisements advocating their preferred candidates in American elections? Ah, one might object, but buying campaign advertising is not the same as engaging in speech. And corporations are not the same as individuals. These are precisely the two principles that Messrs Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas rejected in Citizens United.

For me this brings back two things I thought were obvious until the Citizens United decision. 1) Buying advertising is not identical to practicing free speech and 2) Corporations (and unions) are not individuals. Of course, as Ben pointed out yesterday, the real kicker of the Citizens United decision was the removal of reporting requirements. We are now left with less data about the additional money being spent and where that money is coming from.

I wonder how the most vociferous defenders of the decision would feel if Saudi royals influenced city council elections in Dearborn, Michigan in the hopes of founding a Wahabi grade school? My gut says they would be non-plussed at the notion.

Marc Thiessen, Ideologically Blinded Moron

Marc Thiessen’s propensity for writing ideologically-driven nonsense on the pages of the Washington Post sets him apart, well, not all, from most of the rest of that paper’s columnists. The deficiencies of the WaPo’s Op-Ed page are well known and oft commented upon. Thiessen, though, is particularly objectionable in part for his mindless defense of all things Bush and attack of all things Obama—much in the way the Bush administration approached the Clinton administration to its ultimate determent, see 9/11—and in part for his suborning evil (read: torture).

Among the strange positions he’s taken are an opposition to targeted killing (because it demonstrates Obama is weak on terrorism) and opposition to civilian trials for terrorists (because it demonstrates Obama is weak on terrorism). In his most recent diatribe he writes:
The Ghailani prosecution is hanging by a thread today not because of the interrogation techniques employed against him, but because of the Obama administration's ideological insistence on treating terrorists like common criminals and trying them in federal courts.

There are myriad problems with this statement. One obvious problem is that the Ghailani prosecution is not hanging by a thread—if it were, the government likely would have pursued an interlocutory appeal of the decision that inspired Thiessen’s Op-Ed. Another obvious problem is that the reason for the set back in the Ghailani case has nothing to with the Obama administration—it has everything to do with the Bush administration's program of using overly harsh interrogation methods at secret prisons. The setback, if it is a setback at all, can be place squarely at the feet of the Bush administration, Thiessen’s former employer.

Ultimately, though, the oddest part of Thiessen’s preferred approach—“they can be held indefinitely under the laws of war”—is its implicit elevation of Ghailani, a terrorist, to the status of a soldier. Combatants and civilians directly participating in hostilities are detainable—not indefinitely, but until the end of hostilities—under the law of armed conflict. This is not meant to punish the combatants but to remove them from the battlefield and return them, unharmed and unpunished, once the war has ceased. Terrorists, on the other hand, are criminals: they have not killed other combatants (legitimate targets); they have not targeted infrastructure of military import and utility; they have not abided by the laws or customs of war. No, they have killed untargetable civilians, attacked civilian infrastructure: they have committed murder. They ought to be treated as criminals—and soldiers, including our soldiers, deserve better than Thiessen’s implicit moral equivalence with terrorists.

Finally, from a pragmatic perspective, civilian trials have proved eminently more effective than CSRTs or Military Commissions in dealing with terrorists. Since 9/11, upwards of 300 terrorists have been successfully prosecuted and convicted in civilian courts, garnering something like a 90% conviction rate. In contrast, 70% of detainees at GTMO who have challenged their detention through habeas corpus proceedings have won.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

That Town Hall Analogy

A few months ago, while discussing the impact of Citizen's United, I used an analogy (that I stole from a colleague) centered on Norman Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms series. Specifically: imagine a New England town hall meeting. Now, instead of the banker waiting for the mechanic to finish speaking before the banker gets to speak, imagine the room filled--every seat filled--with someone wearing the same colored t-shirt, sponsored by Corporation X, to repeat X's talking points. Now imagine that when you walk up to the town hall meeting, every seat has already been filled by people paid by X and there's a line out the door of people paid by X. That's the potential impact of Citizen's United: the drowning out of all other points of view in a race.

Here's one exhibit: 60 Plus has spent 83 percent as much as Kapanke has spent on his entire campaign.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Governator in his Closing Scenes

I've often considered the political existence of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but haven't dedicated the time to come to any conclusions. The Economist does that for me, and I think it's a nice little "history at present" roundup.

Time will tell what, if any, impact the Governator actually had. I can't help feeling that in many policies, Gov. Schwarzenegger advanced sensible, well-reasoned policies but failed to get the buy-in from the roustabouts on either end of the spectrum. Pity that. His story also makes me consider President Obama, promises of post-partisanship, and the inability to govern from the center.

The Economist piece closes on a back-handedly encouraging note, "Seven years ago Californians were furious enough to elect him but not to follow through. Now more of them realise what a mess their state is in."

Will we be saying the same thing about the United States in 2016? Will the Brits learn to use a "z" instead of that bastard "s"? Time will tell, but odds are greater on the former.

The Global Fund: Austerity and Aid

International development and aid work is not something we talk about a lot on this blog, despite the editors personal connections to some great friends doing great things all over the world. (Example) But I thought it would be worthwhile to consider how the global financial crisis and the calls for austerity, particularly in Western Europe, is impacting aid work.

The Global Fund, a major multilateral aid group working intently on health issues, fell $1.3 billion from its targeted pledge of the $13 billion they needed just to meet existing commitments. They received pledges for $11.7 billion, but had hoped to increase donations to $20 billion. According to The Economist, "this would have allowed [The Global Fund],...to triple the number of antiretroviral treatments for HIV from 2.5m at the end of 2009 to 7.5m."

The article pointed to a couple bright spots, including a commitment from the US to donate $4 billion over 3 years (if I'm reading the article correctly). This gives The Global Fund a longer timeline.

But a separate article at Baobob mentions something else that has larger geopolitical implications, namely the emergence of China as an aid donor to the African continent. While Chinese donations have been more about industrial development, rather than health-related projects, it shouldn't be lost on anyone how this could lead to a degree of patronage on the continent.

What does it all mean? I think it means as the Western world is constrained by demands of austerity two things are going to happen in Africa:
1) Essential health aid isn't going to be coming.
2) China's continued patronage and rising prestige with particular governments could give rise to the kind of client-state relationships that defined the Cold War and hobbled Africa's "post-colonial" development.

Of course altruism and a commitment to humanity should be enough of a reason for Western governments to continue pledging aid, but if it isn't (and oft times it isn't), perhaps we should consider the strategic reasons.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Chicken or The Egg: Blaming....someone...

Matt Steinglass has a post up in Democracy in Action discussing Obama's pocket veto of a once uncontroversial piece of mortgage-related legislation. He gets into a defense of the intelligence of elected officials, but I think he gets off track when he says:

These people [member of Congress] aren't mindlessly partisan carney barkers, but they often play them on TV. Why? My working theory is that it's generally because we, the voters, demand it. We're frequently angry, and we're not very smart.

Slow down. I just can't get fully behind this point, and not because I think I'm a pretty smart guy (trust me, I am). My own "working theory" is a media monster that constantly needs fed and the degradation of professional journalism into a horse-race, process-centric smörgåsbord/trough that the monster can feed at. The gaffe, the audacious, indeed the irrational is sexy. The actual policy is tedious, plodding, and boring. Can you imagine watching Morning Joe (I watch at the gym. Yes the gym. Seriously.) for 3 hours in the morning where there is mostly a reasoned discussion of specific policy choices? Mika would fall asleep. Joe would run out of things to say (maybe).

But Stienglass doesn't stop there, he continues:

Rather, I think one of the things you have to recognize about politics is that it's to a great extent composed of very smart people forcefully saying things they know aren't true, in order to retain the support of the public to do the complicated things they know are actually in the public interest.

Let me get this straight: Our elected officials knowingly say things that aren't true to gain our support so when nobody is looking they can actually serve us. Is that really our reality? No wonder there's a Tea Party and people hate incumbents.

Steinglass presents a vision of the US political scene that makes me want to wave a Gadsden flag (h/t Wikipedia). I refuse to accept that 1) The American people want politicians to dumb it down and 2) Dumbing it down is the way to be reelected.

Am I living in denial? Meh, maybe. I prefer to consider it faith in the ability of our politicians, the media, and the we the people to strive for something better.


Private Security Contractors in Afghanistan

The Senate released what The Washington Post has called a "blistering" report about security contractors in Afghanistan. (h/t JC) It an unflattering recounting of lackadaisical background checks (or none at all), and stories of employing duplicitous (or flat out enemy) warlords and their militias. Of course the contractors pay the warlords money for services rendered (though not evaluated) and some of that money may be getting into the hands of Taliban insurgents.

There has already been a lot written about the use of private security contractors. There is a big down-side and an as yet unclear upside. The concept of private security contractors has even been lampooned in a recent movie. I don't have much to add except a few points.

1) How many times we do need to have an incident reported in a newspaper or an official report before closing these guys down becomes a priority? Clearly their use doesn't change hearts and mind.

2) The reporting has an incredulous tone that these warlords would work with the Taliban (and take money from the highest bidder). This is essentially how Afghanistan has worked for centuries, and indignation doesn't really help us.

3) Ben pointed this out to me yesterday, and I think it's worth stating. The Taliban were the recognized or at least de facto government in Kabul from 1996 to 2001. Also, the Taliban does not mean Al Qaeda and vice versa. I think in the minds of the American public the two are inextricably linked. This creates a problem when reports come out that Afghan warlords are working with the Taliban. It gets read as "Afghan warlords are working with the people that attacked us on 9/11." This is not factually accurate. We need to disaggregate the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Back to the original point. This is an unflattering report, though certainly not the first of its kind. It sounds like maybe the Pentagon is prepared to do something about this, but that something means putting more American servicemen and women in harms way. As repugnant as private security contractor utilization might be, it's easier to periodically decry them in reports then it is politically viable to advocate to put more Americans in harms way.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Longing for a Simpler Time

Dana Milbank has a column about an untelevised press conference/gaggle conducted by Robert Gibbs. Milbank is hit or miss for me, but the longing for a time when grownups had a serious conversation is certainly something I can appreciate.

Preconditions for Taliban Talks

The AP reports today that, according to a former head of the Pakistani ISI, the Taliban have set out 3 preconditions for negotiations: 1) a timetable for NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan; 2) the release of Taliban prisoners; 3) removal of the 'terrorist' label from the Taliban. Clearly, the Taliban conditions indicate a desire to be recognized as a traditional belligerent, conferring a modicum of legitimacy on the organization.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Stimulus Wasn't Big Enough

The IMF has there 2010 World Economic Outlook out and they put forth the idea that if the world economy weakens further, those nations that can afford it (say a nation who's 10 year bond rate is hovering around 2.4) should consider additional stimulus.

The IMF also makes the point in the executive summary that "fiscal consolidation in advanced economies typically detracts from short-term growth." In other words, if you cut government spending, you hurt short term growth. And as Matt Steinglass points out in Democracy in America, the IMF has concluded that fiscal consolidation to the order of 1 percent of GDP leads to a 0.5 percent decrease in real GDP and a 0.3 percent increase in unemployment.

So far we have paid out $537 billion from the original $787 billion that was authorized. That constitutes 68% of the authorized funds.

I'm not saying we pass another stimulus tomorrow. I'm saying it needs to be part of the policy conversation. Paul Krugman has been all over this here, here, & here, and clearly he has a point of view, but he's also a Nobel Prize winning economist who's research focused on the Great Depression. Maybe we should listen to him instead of waiting for him to say "I told you so." (Which has said many times in the past couple years)

UPDATE: Jan Hatzius, economist with Goldman Sachs, has a grim outlook for the U.S. economy over the next 6 to 9 months. He also notes "The reason is...the impulse from fiscal policy [is] likely to continue deteriorating through 2011."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Free to Choose & Moral Responsibility

ThinkProgress has a link up about a house in Obion County Tennessee that was allowed to burn to the ground, while firemen stood by and watched. They watched and did nothing because the homeowner hadn't paid the $75 annual fee to get fire protection services. Obion County is outside the city of South Fulton, TN and for residents outside the city to receive fire protection, they must pay.

The conservative blogosphere didn't show much compassion for the family.

Krugman make's a useful comparison to the belief system that undergirds this situation and healthcare.

Me? I'm torn on the specific case, to be honest. No, the family didn't pay the fee and they made that choice, but I think the firemen should have fought the fire because that's their job. I don't know if I could have stood by and watched a family's house burn because they didn't pay $75. I understand their superiors might not have allowed action. It seems petty to me. Bill the family for goodness sake.

What if you contested your electric bill and didn't pay on time? Should the electric company be allowed to turn out the lights the day the money is late?

Course there are those that will say it was the homeowner's choice to not pay the fee and he must live with that choice. To me, that's a cold view of the world. I am left to ponder if people out there truly believe they have no responsibility to their fellow man. Isn't the world a scarier place in the face of this hyper-Hobbesian vision of something we once called society?

There is an overreach in the opposite direction where choice is denied to the individual in support of the collective, but when a house is allowed to burn to the ground over a $75 fee I think it's time to consider if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Of course, that's not the message you'd get from the modern Republican party or the Tea party.

Defense Spending, Sacred Cows, and the Tea Party

AEI's Arthur Brooks, Heritage's Edwin Feulner, and Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol joined forces yesterday to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (full text at Heritage.org) basically saying in the discussion about where to cut deficits can't include a discussion about cutting our defense budget.

C'mon man! (for the reader(s) who watch ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown)

Instead, they go after entitlements. "Cut them first!" they holler, "Or else!" Or else our trading lanes will be obstructed, our freedom threatend, lions, tigers, bears! Oh my! Now the op-ed actually raised the ire of a conservative (maybe libertarian is a better descriptor) blogger writing on the Economist.com's Democracy in America blog. W.W. out of Iowa City, IA (because repetition sells) responds and makes from very valid points. The most notable point that our current defense spending is greater then the spending by China, Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, and Australia combined. Surely there is some room to make cuts there.

Also, let's look at percentages. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities project that in FY2010 about 20% of tax receipts will go to pay for defense and security spending. This, by the way, is the same percentage as Social Security.

There is also the point to be made that President Obama didn't start two wars (one entirely justified, one less so) while cutting taxes. That's a tired point, but one we shouldn't forget.

I'm not saying we don't touch entitlements. There can be no sacred cows if we are legitimately going to get our budget deficit under control. My issue is the ridiculous attempt by these thought leaders of the conservative movement declaring one fifth of federal spending off limits for cuts. Ridiculous.

Closing note: W.W. critiques the WSJ op-ed and wonders if Tea Party activists will rally around this op-ed. He's hoping they don't. If you've read Matt Taibbi's piece in Rolling Stone (and I have) you are far less optimistic they won't.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Well Said, Bob Gates

In response to the appropriations process halving the State Departments request for $2 billion for its operations in Iraq, Swampland quotes Bob Gates:
"It is one of these cases where, having invested an enormous amount of money, we are now arguing about a tiny amount of money in terms of bringing this to a successful conclusion," Gates said. "It reminds me for all the world of the last scene in Charlie Wilson's War, where, having forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan and having spent billions to do it, Charlie Wilson can't get a million dollars for schools." It's a good thing Charlie died in February at 76, so he won't have to watch the sequel.

Obviously Iraq is not Afghanistan redux--Afghanistan is not even really Afghanistan redux--but Gates' point should be well taken. Disengagement after Soviet withdrawal was a major contributing factor to the failure of the Afghan state, giving rise to the instability that facilitated the Taliban's take-over and, eventually, Al Qaeda's creation of a fiefdom there. For several years we've witnessed an incredible decline in US influence in Iraq. At the same time, the dysfunction of the Iraqi political system has been patent over the last 7 months as Iraq has struggled to form a new government, leading, it appears, to the resurgence of Muqtada al-Sadr. After the time, blood, and treasure expended in Iraq--ours and the Iraqis--it would be a tragedy to, through short-sighted penny pinching, undermine what was eventually built up.

Facebook, Freedom, and a New Political Structure

Spurred on by Malcolm Gladwell's piece on social networks and the way they could potentially undermine autocratic states (I haven't read Gladwell's piece because I never received the refund I requested for buying and attempting to read Blink) set off a conversation between Matt Steinglass, Matthew Yglesias, and then a response by Steinglass.

The whole debate seems a little too much like navel-gazing to me, but in Steinglass's response he makes a statement I 100% agree with, but couldn't have said so well:

It is possible that single-party rule by a self-selecting, self-reproducing political elite that allows cultural and entrepreneurial freedom is a viable model for a modern state.

I think this is the lesson of modern China, and it is a lesson that won't be lost on future aspiring autocrats. Remember when capitalism would lead to democracy? I read an awful book about it in college. I think it's a flawed hypothesis.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ireland: Leaving it to the Magical Markets

More bad news for Ireland this morning, as they are forced to bailout two banks at a cost of 40billions (with a B) euros to try and ensure investor confidence. You will recall Ireland was lauded for it's austerity measures in the face of a swelling deficit, but now it seems like it's all pain and no gain.

Current 10-year bond rates for Irish bonds stand at 6.8%, while the US 10-year bond rate closed at 2.5%. Let's not forget how Obama was assailed for suggesting austerity would stifle recovery.

And I'll preemptively reiterate something: I think the free markets are wonderful things, and they are, by and large efficient. But markets fail. That failure destroys people's livelihoods and that's when the government has to step in and ease the inevitable market correction.

Clearly for Ireland, something has gone awry and because of professed belt-tightening there is little the government can do to help people out. They're stuck waiting for the market correction.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Glenn Beck and Anti-Intellectualism

The New York Times Magazine has a profile out on Glenn Beck this weekend, but they have a preview available now. After reading it, I felt like it wandered. It was neither revealing of Beck's ethos, nor critical of the misstatements and intimations he dresses up as "history." But that's not what bothered me.

What bothered me was Beck's concept of populist intellectualism, where the "common man" gets it and the college educated mess it up. This was best represented in a comment by an attendee at Beck and Palin's Anchorage performance who remarked, "[Woodrow Wilson] was the start of the Progressive Era. He believed that college intellectuals should decide how the world should be run."

Now beyond the contradiction of deifying the founding fathers, (Thomas Jefferson graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1762 and passed the Virginia bar in 1967) and finding Woodrow Wilson's "college intellectuals" repugnant, there are broader concerns I have.

What's wrong with being a college educated intellectual? Why is this a perceived cause for a fissure in our social fabric? Is this now the great societal divide in America?

The rising tide of anti-intellectualism is one that has increasingly concerned me. It seems politically advantageous to pick on the smart kids. That's dangerous thinking. The college educated should not lord over those that don't have a college education, and perhaps that is the perception. Perhaps that is the reality. Young, college educated students are being tapped to manage older, more experienced professionals that haven't earned that piece of paper called a college diploma.

If that garners resentment, I understand it to a point, but to deride the educated as shysters because they are educated seems like a really good way to prevent the country from moving forward. Maybe that's the idea.

I meandering post to say the least. Maybe if I'd finished that graduate degree it would make more sense. Course, then I'd have to hate myself more.


Military Age vs. Drinking Age: Flipping the Switch

In a post yesterday in the Economist.com's Democracy in America blog, a contributor considers the drinking age vis a vis the age of military service and comes at the issue from a different angle:

There's been a bit of a hubbub recently about the fact that soldiers under the age of 21, like other Americans under 21, are barred from purchasing alcohol. Society trusts us to fire automatic weapons in America's name, the soldiers ask, but it doesn't trust us to drink a beer? It's a reasonable point...But I would take the opposite tack: teenagers should not be firing automatic weapons in America's name. We should raise the minimum age for soldiers on combat duty to 21.

The author goes on to cite studies that would suggest the mind isn't fully developed until someone reaches there 20s. To be honest, I have never considered this idea before, but I think it has a lot of merit. The author of the post makes a particularly prescient note that:

Adults tend to find recruitment campaigns based on macho athletic fantasies and evocations of the World of Warcraft experience somewhat less convincing than teenagers do. But for a military that expects to spend much of its time drinking tea and building collaborative relationships with local community leaders, rather than blowing things up, that's probably a plus.

Quite right. For those of you that have seen Restrepo, the documentary released in conjunction with Sebastian Junger's book War, I think the point will ring especially true. We see the well-intentioned army captain, Cpt. Dan Kearney, in the movie participating in jirgas with the locals, and we're given the impression this captain is a vast improvement over the captain that preceded him. That said, I was certainly left with the impression that the new captain just couldn't connect. Cpt. Kearney was too macho, too battle-ready to tolerate the tea-drinking, the circular conversation, and the round-about approach that defines the region he was sent to pacify and develop.

Of course there are myriad reasons why this it is impractical to raise the age of eligibility for military service, but they could be managed with proper resources. At some point, it may be worth discussing if we need a larger military or a smarter military and considering that the two are naturally complementary.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Afghanistan: Are we finally getting it?

General Petraeus has indicated that high-level Taliban member have reached out to the Karzai government and is prepared to begin to broach the subject of peace and reconciliation. Couple things to note about the report.
  1. Gen. Petraeus is quite supportive of these talks taking place and it's clear from his comments he views this as an integral part of the peace process.
  2. President Karzai (and probably Pakistan), his administration, and his allies seem to be hedging on the prospects that these talks will even take place.
I've been reading Thomas Barfield's Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. I had been looking for a book that could take me all the way back to the origins of the Afghanistan. There are a number of great books that look at Afghanistan as the theater of war for various imperialists, but Barfield's book is the first that is about the Afghans, as much as there are Afghans. I'm a little over a fourth done with it, but I've covered a lot of ground prior to the start of the 20th century and through reading and from the two notes above I think the these two points are also true (and probably of greater consequence for Afghanistan):
  1. Gen. Petraeus understands that Afghanistan have never been stable as a highly centralized nation, and those that have tried to impose such an order have met with fierce resistance. He, I think, understands that there need to be a weak central government (likely based in Kabul) that will project minimal power over the other urban centers and even less over the rural hinterlands of Afghanistan. In return, that central government will have peace.
  2. President Karzai wants all or nothing. It seems the concessions of authority (and the limits of extortion) a reconciled central government would need to tolerate is an intolerable position for Karzai. He forget his history prior to 1970 and perhaps has too much arrogance to understand how bad the past 40 years have been for Afghanistan, when his predecessors tried to do what he is himself trying to do now.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I think the reasons for us to not back Karzai continue to outweigh the reasons to back him. Unfortunately, in the absence of an alternative we're stuck with a Afghan president that knows his own country's history worse then the much lamented occupier.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Revenues & Expenses

Peter Orzag has a great op-ed in The New York Times this morning advocating for a two year extension of all the Bush tax cuts and then a full repeal in 2013. He does some great "back of the napkin" math and makes plain, what most serious policymakers will already tell you. We can't simply cut spending and expect the budget deficit to go away. We need more revenue.

I don't think Orzag's plan is realistic just because it requires compromise and today's politicians signing on to tomorrow's decision. We could have different politicians by the time 2013 gets here or the sensible voices of yore might be trapped in a tough primary and have to stop being sensible (See McCain, Sen. John).

Regardless, I think it's a good thing more and more high-profile policymakers and pundits are saying that we need more revenue. People don't like government spending, but don't want to be without government services. Since we can't privatize everything, we're going to have to start taking in more money to pay for it. Reality sucks, but senior citizens living in poverty, roads and bridges that are crumbling, a pay-to-learn education system, and an ill-equipped military will suck more.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Healthcare if Different

In the comments section of this blog healthcare has been a much debated topic. Austin Frakt writes why healthcare is different, and why the solution can't simply be increased individual choice.

It's a complex problem and simply "liberating" the market won't work on its own.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck's Rally Write-ups

In case you didn't hear, and if you live in DC you had to have been under a rock not to, Glenn Beck held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend. I didn't wander down to the Mall myself.

I was concerned I would be found out as a socialist, fingers would be point, mob justice would commence, and some part of the Mall's landscape would be used to facilitate my end. I did, however, watch a little on C-SPAN. I only saw what I hope was the majority of Beck's comments, and on the whole his comments was just stupid blathering. I have no idea what point he was trying to make, but again, (finger point to self) socialist.

In fact, my biggest bone to pick was the whole "We were $600,000 short of our goal, and God provided." Now, a guy who made $32 million in 2009, should have $600,000 lying around and he certainly shouldn't weep because this ego-event wasn't going to make its goal. Maybe it's the socialist in me, but if a $5 million event is short by $600,000 and I make $32 million a year, I would just donate the other $600,000. But that's me and I also tend to believe social justice isn't a dirty word or Mao-ist plot.

Anyway, some interesting write-ups by reporters on the ground on Saturday and reflections on the people they talked with from Economist.com and from The Washington Post. They both reach the conclusion, rightfully in my estimation, that the grievances most members of the Tea Party have aren't new. The new part is the complete distortion of background information they are receiving (from Mr. Beck on pretty regular occasion) and how that creates an impossible environment to actually deal with their grievances.

That's the real pity. Fellow citizens with legitimate grievances that are getting bad information, making them incapable of contributing to the solution.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Letting the Tax Cuts Expire – Doing the Math

There’s a great paper put out by the Tax Policy Center, which puts into greater detail what the effect of the Obama administration’s proposed tax plan would actually mean at different income levels. The paper determines:

The impact of the Obama proposal is virtually identical to that of extending all of the cuts for the vast majority of tax payers. Sizeable differences don’t emerge until you hit the top 1 percent of taxpayers – those households making at least $600,000.

This means that even for the administrations own rhetoric about households making $250,000 or more per year is a conservative estimate on how big a group will be impacted. The paper outlines that in the 90th to 95th percentile the real difference between the Obama proposal and the full extension of tax cuts is $2. That’s not a typo. Houses making on average $196,549 will receive a tax cut of $5,508 under the Obama plan, versus $5,510 under a full extension.

Take this in contrast to the 99.9th percentile of tax payers with an average income of $8,367,274, under Obama’s plan they would lose $310,140 in tax cuts, what amounts to 3.7% of the average income for those in the 99.9th percentile. It’s also worth noting that NO income level will see their tax liability increase to pre-2001 levels. Even at the highest percentile of earners, they will have tax cuts 1.1% great then they would if all the tax cuts were allowed to expire.

So why the uproar? It’s the same old song and dance I’m afraid. The Obama proposal will hit the folks in the top 1% of income earners, those folks making more then $1,000,000 per year, but for the other 99% the effect is shown to be minimal if nonexistent. We have long-run deficit problems in this country and the Tax Policy paper notes that this proposal is not a silver bullet, but it’s a modest first step, and a step worth making.

Alan Greenspan recently said that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t respond to a direct question if indeed the full extension of these tax cuts would pay for themselves. He avoided the question four times on how you pay for a full extension of the tax cuts. It’s worth noting that that Congressional Budget Office has determined a full extension of the tax cuts will add $3.7 trillion dollars to the deficit over the next ten years. You can talk about cutting spending all you want (and McConnell did) but the only actual proposal the Republicans have put forth is Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” plan. This plan, by the way, was scored by the CBO with unrealistic assumptions and it was only because of those unrealistic assumptions (provided by Rep. Ryan’s staff) that the “Roadmap” did anything to reduce the deficit.

The Obama proposal is a limited first step in a long road to long-run fiscal solvency. To this point, we have had to ignore the short-run deficit and I would dare say that in the next four to six quarters we could continue to ignore the deficit, but letting the majority of tax cuts expire for the top 5% of earners in this country seems like a sensible step to move us down the road.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Outstanding Historical Gloss of the Day

"On the judicial side, the [late 1930's] ushered in a period of unprecedented goodwill towards the regulatory system."
--Robert L. Rabin, Federal Regulation in Historical Perspective, reprinted in Peter L. Strauss, Todd D. Rakoff & Cynthia R. Farina, Administrative Law 13, 17 (2003).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pirates of the Gulf of Aden

A federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia threw out piracy charges brought by the government against six Somali men who allegedly attempted to attack a US naval vessel. The defense, in challenging the charges, relied on the 1820 Supreme Court case United States v. Smith. That case defines piracy, according to the "law of nations," as "robbery upon the sea."